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Remystifying the city

by Randy Haluza-DeLay

A couple of summers ago, a colleague and I, along with eight teenagers, left Edmonton and ventured into the Alberta mountains on a twelve-day hiking and canoeing trip. During the trip we had ample opportunity and inspiration to talk about the natural world, the state of the environment and minimum impact camping. When we met afterwards to discuss how the experience had influenced the teens now that they were back home, it was not surprising that no one’s life had been dramatically changed by our twelve days in that wild, pristine setting. But it was intriguing – and unsettling – to learn that none of these young people had carried home a strong sense of environmental concern. For them, nature was “out there” in the wild mountains and raging rivers, a place unexplored and undisturbed, with few or no people, and without human-made things.Nature was not back here where they lived; “here” was already wrecked and too familiar. Even their language reflected the dichotomy they perceived between “Nature” and “Civilization”. And because in these teens’ minds there was no nature at home, they regarded environmental action at home as irrelevant. As one student put it, “I recycle here, but to me it’s a lost cause. Picking up garbage will make it look nice, but it can’t help the plants to grow.”

In North America, land use has always been an either/ or proposition: either total preservation or total development. And now that most of us live in towns and cities, the `Nature’ that young people know is often a mythical abstraction. This has important implications for educators, because the way we think about the natural world and our place in it is the crucial terrain of environmental education. As long as the natural world is a remote place out there and not to be found in the familiar settings where we live, protection of the earth’s environment is unlikely. Our challenge is therefore twofold: to combine direct experience of nature with a cognitive understanding of our daily reliance on the natural world. If we wish young people to care for the environment in the places they live, we must help them to recognize that the natural world exists not only in the wild, unexplored out there but also in the familiar here. This is not to suggest that we must demystify the wilderness, but rather that we must remystify the city.

To remystify the city is to reawaken a sense of wonder and to alert ourselves to the marvels in familiar things. It is to blur the mental boundaries between Nature and Civilization so that we have an understanding of ourselves and our human-built environments as part of the natural world. It is to understand that human activities are founded upon the earth’s systems, that cities are not isolated islands where these processes are not in operation. It is to instill a compassionate sense of place that consciously links care of self and the broader world, both human and non-human. Remystifying the city and connecting to the place we live is a beginning in learning to live with the land.

Explore nature close to home

To remystify the city we need first to break the association of nature with majestic mountains or pristine forests. The natural world does exist in the everyday lives of city dwellers, and wild nature close to home begs to be explored. Grass and wildflowers spring through sidewalk cracks; birds abound in city trees; and even bigger species have adapted well to living in human-dominated environments. There are more rabbits in the Edmonton city limits, a biologist tells me, than in the area immediately outside. Peregrine falcons nest on the ledges of city skyscrapers. Rodent and avian mooches lunch with us at parks and roadside stops. Raccoons make their dens under our porches.

The first step in remystifying the city is simply to look around. Schoolyards have a wealth of unappreciated biomass, and one teacher related the fascination of his kids as they explored their school grounds and found mini-wetlands, evidence of many mammal species, and animal homes of all types. Study the urban forest, starting with the trees that line the streets, and include the humans that live around them. Explore parks and graveyards. Take a canoe trip within the city limits. On such a trip, one of my students expressed shock that “there was this much nature so close to my house!”

In this global age, when nightly television informs our sense of reality more clearly than direct encounter, and Internet hopping to far-flung sites is becoming routine, youth probably know more about Antarctic penguins and the African savannah than about the natural history of their own area. Learning that nature exists in the city, and recognizing some of the signs and details of its presence, is the first step in remystifying the city.

Explore the small wonders

Part of the challenge in remystifying the city is to make the familiar sufficiently unfamiliar to invoke the sense of curiosity that we all had as children. Create mystery by seeking the tiny wonders often missed in the rush to look at the big picture. When we begin to look closely we often begin to notice what was hitherto taken for granted.

For this, magnifying glasses are a marvelous tool. They are an antidote to seeing insects as homogeneous and can make leaves, cement sidewalks and dirt come alive, literally. A camera is another worthwhile tool. Learning about composition, angles and other techniques can make common things appear much less common and more interesting.

I often start exploration sessions with a quote from Lew Welch: “Step out onto the planet. Draw a circle a hundred feet round. Inside the circle are three hundred things nobody understands, and, maybe nobody’s ever really seen. How many can you find?” (1) Then we venture off on a diminutive scavenger hunt. Items on our list include shapes, colours and patterns, as well as specific items related to the current subject of study. All finds need to be smaller than an inch. In another exploration of small wonders, we take one-metre micro-hikes along pieces of string cast on the ground. I tell the students that they are trail guides and must find five scenic sights to share with a partner or the class. Giant grass forests or grazing herds are popular sightings. In “A Meter of My Own” each person picks a patch of ground and observes it once a week over the course of a term. We use journals to take field notes, recording measurements and observing changes. Then we relate the micro-environment to the bigger processes of the natural world hydrologic cycles, biodiversity, seasonal variation and so on.

In these ways I hope to alert students to the beauty they may overlook: dandelions sprinkling boring green lawns with lascivious colour, the wondrous intricacy of the inner parts of a flower, even the common robin which is really a spectacularly coloured bird. Exploring these mysteries of the natural world where we live can help blur the boundaries of Nature and Civilization and make the familiar become unfamiliar again.

Address the Nature vs. Civilization dichotomy

As part of the process of remystifying the city I encourage students to discuss their views of how humans and the rest of the natural world relate to each other. One activity that starts this process is called Forced Choice. Everyone stands on a line. I designate each side of the line as “Yes” or “No” and read a series of statements: Are humans part of nature? Is the natural world just for human use? Should all mosquitos be exterminated? Is there value in a vacant lot? Everyone has to decide which way to move. Occasionally I ask folks to justify their decision. Rethinking our view of the world is tough!

Analysis of how advertisements portray nature allows young people to consider societal representations of the human role on the planet. After examining human-centred ideas, give the class readings that address a different view of nature. Earth Prayers is a good source and Chief Seattle’s speech is a classic. Students can then prepare a response to share with the class.

Debates and role plays are other effective techniques. A role play we do is called “The Manor”. After the youth have been at the outdoor centre for a day, we tell them that the Board of Directors is considering selling the land to develop a seniors’ retirement village. Individuals or partners draw stakeholder roles. Roles such as builder, senior, county tax assessor, outdoor education teacher, parent and others are written on cards in red; roles such as aspen, child at camp, skunk, and osprey are written in blue. After presentations of their points of view, everyone gets to vote. Usually the development project fails, and invariably someone scathingly says, “In the real world skunks can’t vote.” And so we have a second vote, but this time the blue cards cannot cast ballots. The sale always goes through. Since powerful feelings are provoked, discussing the situation is always important. Upon reflection, one group decided to build the village in an ecologically sustainable way an attempt to live with the land by integrating the human-built and natural environments. Role plays such as this help students to step back from our human-centred values, to reconsider the notions of `progress’ and `development’ and to redefine our role in the natural world. In the process, the gap between Nature and Civilization begins to narrow.

Explore connections of the city to the land

Exploring how the city is situated in the broader landscape helps not only to remystify where we live, but also to develop a sense of place. The aim is for students to realize that cities and the human activities within them are founded upon the earth’s systems. Focus on exploring how humans have adjusted to the natural features of the place. Can you trace the water cycle within the city? What are the patterns of air movement? How is the community affected by the natural world right now by floods, wind between buildings, localized microclimates? Government agencies from all levels can be tapped for the resources to answer these questions.

One class project involved study of land use and management at three points in the community’s history. Small groups took different topics: the loss of farmland, the expansion of the town’s street grid, and the change in air clarity. They researched the changes over time by studying city maps and photographs and by interviewing older residents in a local nursing home. After looking at the oldest map, one group asked, “What happened to the creeks?” To find out, they did some urban spelunking through the modern culvert system! Such projects in environmental history help to remystify the city by revealing how humans have adapted to the place and adapted the place to themselves.

Explore the feeling of nature

Natural settings often invoke relaxation, reflection, and a sense of freedom and peace, especially when contrasted with human-dominated environments. This feeling can be restorative and a source of personal growth. Helping young people to find this feeling at a place near home may be one of the most important steps in remystifying the city.

Any outdoor activity that gives time for quiet reflection and close observation can enhance students’ sense of attachment to the natural world. Starting activities with readings, the more evocative the better, often helps participants open up to possibilities. Try deep breathing exercises to expand awareness — of the bird singing in yonder tree, the breeze against the skin, the smell of automobile traffic, the oxygen in your lungs. Solo sits, even on concrete playgrounds for ten minutes, give students a chance to slow down and think, or just be.

Part of our challenge is to open people to the possibility that not everyone in the city has the same experience of the natural world. One wilderness program used to take youth groups downtown. After a session in a soup kitchen and a good briefing on safety measures, the participants were sent out on the streets in pairs or trios. The experience was powerful in creating an awareness of how social and economic privilege help to determine who experiences the outdoors and in what manner. For some city dwellers, the outdoors is a wooded ravine or a riverside lot; for others it is getting through the winter huddled on a hot air grate without a jacket.

After any of these activities make sure to talk about the experience. An experience shared publicly is often more concrete and lasting than one kept to oneself. Make sure also to build an accepting, open environment which will help to counter the tendency in our culture for powerful emotions to be denied or smirked at. (2) I have had success simply by asking young people how they felt after an experience in the natural world. We invariably get into discussion about why we have a busier, less peaceful feeling in the city, and how we can recapture at home the feelings we associate with the natural world. The students usually decide that taking care of natural places near where people live is important for a sense of wholeness, and they are more motivated to do so.

Make creative change

Values should influence action. And yet the alienation of our day is a sense of well-informed futility, a billion voices wondering what one voice can do. In the effort to remystify the city, it is important to discuss barriers to creating change, to practise action strategies and to focus on signs of hope — think of the peregrines! Take action as a group. Reclaim the schoolyard or adopt a local park. Do a lifestyle audit, make a couple (not too many) resolutions and chart progress regularly.

Activities that ask young people to envision the type of world they want to live in are also important. Making radio advertisements to convince others of their visions, creating maps of their ideal world, songwriting, guided meditation and a host of other activities can help capture the motivation for change that remystifying the city may promote.

There is something to be said for encountering the splendour of the natural world through wilderness experiences. There is also something deeper to behold: care for the environment in the daily here-and-now — to feel a part of, and care for, the places of the trodden cement of the sidewalk, the fat worms in the garden, the wind whistling through concrete canyons, the dandelion emerging from battle with herbicides in the front lawn. The city needs to be remystified, for people take care of what they respect and know. It is here that care of the earth must begin, right where we live.

Randy Haluza-DeLay is the Director of Camp Warwa/Warwa Outdoor School in Darwell, Alberta.

1 Lew Welch, [Untitled], in Earth Prayers, Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, eds. (New York: Harper Collins, 1991). This book is a great source for different views on the natural world and the human place.
2 See the two-part article by Louis A. Iozzi, What Research Says to the Educator: Environmental Education and the Affective Domain, Journal of Environmental Education, 1989, Volume 20 (3 and 4).


From Green Teacher 52, Summer 1997 – available for purchase